(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In 1948, about one hundred fifty black people live in Montgomery, a town located about two hours north of New York City. The first black people had begun arriving about thirty years earlier. Others had come during the Depression and World War II.

It is one of the oddities of the community that, as of 1948, no black person had ever died in Montgomery. That hint of immortality is but a part of what seems in many ways to be an idyllic existence. The novel picks up the story of Montgomery and its children just as the idyll is about to come to an end.

Construction has just begun on a racetrack about a mile and a half outside town. To make way for it, a forest in its first growth is leveled. Norman Fillis, a janitor who is thirty-nine years old at the time, sees the animals fleeing from the forest.

Soon after, the black community suffers its first death. In the thirty years that death has stayed away, the community has forgotten how to mourn. It must learn again the old lamentations and must reacquaint itself with sorrow.

People will have plenty of opportunity. Norman, for one, goes mad, although it is a madness that has its own kind of lucidity, even a kind of poetry. He communes with animals and birds and finds in trees a proof of the existence of God. One morning, Norman feels a strange weight on his head, but the weight lifts when he has his head shaved at the local barbershop. On this same day, Norman discovers that watching fire, whatever the source, lets him “see.” It also fills his heart with peace and his mouth with the taste of pomegranates. There is no harm in peace and pomegranates, and there is no real harm in Norman, but when he begins to appear naked in public, it is inevitable that he will occasionally find himself in an institution.

Norman’s madness carries with it a kind of power. His visions are basically true. He sees that troubles are coming, even if he can do nothing to prevent them, and he can fly. At first, he can fly only short distances, but his power increases with practice. He also can pass his power on, if he can find the one meant to receive it.

That one may well be Gerald Fletcher. To Norman, the circle in Gerald’s eye, in fact a congenital mole, is a sign....

(The entire section is 924 words.)